The Legacy of Lee Kyung Hae

Posted January 2, 2005

Categories: Articles, Food, Korea

The South Korean farmer snaps a cucumber in two to show me the drops of moisture that bead to the surface around the break. “If you put it back together and wait a minute, then it will stick together,” Yang Yoon Seok says. Sure enough, he easily rejoins the severed halves and the cucumber is once again whole. He shakes it around in the air, and, like magic, the vegetable remains intact. “It’s not magic,” he tells me. “It’s organic.”

The Smile Farm is all organic, a little magical, and very possibly the future of Korean agriculture. It’s not a huge farm – only 4000 pyong or a little over 3 acres. On those three acres, though, Farmer Yang grows thirty kinds of vegetables, all of them organic. He supplies organic stores in the South Korean capital of Seoul, sixty kilometers to the north. He also sells produce from a store that fronts the nearby road and distributes vegetables through South Korea’s new organic e-farm system on the web. Thousands of visitors a year make the pilgrimage to study Yang’s growing and marketing techniques.

Smile is located in an idyllic part of the country, nestled alongside the Han River that flows north into Seoul. Because the Han supplies the capital with drinking water, all the farms in the vicinity of Smile are required to protect the environment and the river. As such, the area is home to the greatest concentration of organic farms in Korea. As we wander through the greenhouses and Yang Yoon Seok shows me his huge sesame leaves, demonstrates his natural pesticide spray of molasses and alkaline water, and I sample some deliciously sweet cherry tomatoes, it is very easy to forget that Korean agriculture is in a desperate crisis.

The media has covered the collapse of agriculture in North Korea and the resulting famine that has killed as much as ten percent of the population. Receiving far less attention has been the plight of farmers in the South, an agricultural crisis that is hiding in plain sight.

Crisis in the South

For a brief moment two years ago, South Korean farmers suddenly leaped into the media spotlight. On September 10, 2003, Lee Kyung Hae, a farmer and former parliamentarian, stood at the front of a 300-strong South Korean delegation of farmers and union activists protesting at the World Trade Organization ministerial in Cancun. It appeared that he, like the others, was simply trying to breach the fence and disrupt the meeting. Unexpectedly, however, Lee pulled out a knife and plunged it into his heart, committing suicide. In the statement that he passed out just prior to his death, he wrote that “uncontrolled multinational corporations and a small number of big WTO Members are leading an undesirable globalization that is inhumane, environmentally degrading, farmer-killing, and undemocratic.”

Lee Kyung Hae’s suicide not only surprised his compatriots. It surprised many people who believed South Korean agriculture to be a success story. After all, food is plentiful and comparatively inexpensive. The rural areas look green and prosperous. In the space of two generations, South Korea has moved from an agrarian nation with a per capita income in 1960 of a sub-Saharan country to the ranks of the top industrialized countries in the world. Even as more and more people moved to the cities for better paid jobs, Korean farms raised their yields to feed the growing ranks of industrial workers throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

But low prices for food, a depopulated countryside, and an industrial approach to boosting yields have all contributed to bringing the farming sector to the brink of crisis. Even producers of the mainstays of the Korean diet – rice and pickled vegetables (kimchi) – have hit hard times. Rice farmers are grappling with falling rates of rice consumption, despite government efforts to promote such innovations as rice pizza and rice ice cream. Koreans are increasingly eating kimchi imported from China, where Korean companies have relocated to take advantage of the low cost of labor and cabbage.

“South Korea is successful?” Kwon Young Geun of the Korean Agricultural Society Research Institute asks rhetorically. “I don’t think so. People have moved away from the countryside. Self-sufficiency has decreased even though yields have increased. There has been the penetration of multinational corporations. Of the 50 global food franchises, 40 of them are here in South Korea.”

Kwon attributes this diminishing self-sufficiency to the effects of the Green Revolution, a bundle of technological changes that revolved around new, high-yield seed varieties, increased application of fertilizers and pesticides, and greater use of irrigated water. These changes effectively industrialized the countryside by making farmers dependent on seed companies (rather than saving seeds themselves), suppliers of fertilizer (a petroleum product), and irrigation equipment. North Korea similarly came to depend on Green Revolution-style modifications. Indeed, North and South Korea were among the top five users of chemical fertilizers in the world. Both countries also relied heavily on chemical pesticides to make up for the diminishing returns from the fertilizers. Agriculture in both countries requires large inputs of energy, which is also largely imported.

However much the Green Revolution might have eroded the sustainability of South Korean agriculture, it was two decisions made by the United States in the 1980s that created the conditions against which Lee Kyung Hae struggled so mightily. Bilaterally, at the end of the 1980s, the United States began to threaten trade sanctions – through the infamous Section 301 trade law – against countries that maintained trade barriers to protect domestic industries. Washington applied enormous pressure on Seoul to open its markets to US tobacco, wine, rice, and beef. Today, the only important resistance remains in the rice sector (at the end of 2004, South Korea won another ten-year extension for its tariffs but only in exchange for doubling the percentage of foreign imports). Bilateral free trade agreements with Chile and China will also likely hit Korea’s agricultural sector hard.

At the multilateral level, meanwhile, the United States in the mid-1980s argued that agriculture should be included in trade negotiations. In the immediate postwar era, the United States maintained tariff walls to protect its own agricultural sector and used the food surpluses to strengthen Cold War alliances. By the 1980s, however, trade and budget deficits – and a declining need to subsidize the economies of allies for Cold War purposes – motivated Washington to change its position. Eventually the World Trade Organization emerged as an arena in which powerful agricultural producers pressured everyone else to expose their “uncompetitive” farming sectors to global market forces. As its tariff walls began to crumble, South Korea began to import more Thai rice, US wheat, and Latin American soybeans. Korean consumers enjoyed lower prices; Korean farmers faced higher debt. Lee Kyung Hae lost his own farm because of the flood of cheap Australian beef into the Korean market.

“During the Uruguay Round in the 1990s, the Korean government tried to protect farmers,” Kwon Young Geun says. “But it gave up because the industrial sector was much more powerful.”

There was no more poignant example of this discrepancy in power between the agricultural and industrial sectors in South Korea than the “garlic war” of 2000. Responding to complaints from farmers over cheaper imports, the Korean government slapped a 315 percent tariff on Chinese garlic. When China retaliated with trade restrictions on mobile phones and polyethylene, Korea backed down. Garlic may be a popular ingredient in Asian cuisine, but people all over the world use Korean mobile phones and the product provides considerable trade revenues.

The Organic Solution?

South Korea’s organic sector is small but growing. The number of organic farms more than doubled from 1999 to 2002 while the acreage and amount of production tripled. But most of the “green” farming done in South Korea falls in the category of “environmentally friendly” rather than organic (2.5 percent versus .02 percent according to a report by Landry Consulting). Under the “environmentally friendly” category, farmers can still use chemical pesticides and fertilizers, though in considerably reduced quantities.

As in other countries, the Korean demand for organic produce outstrips the supply. But organic farmers have a tough time making ends meet, according to Na Gi-Soo of the Korea Organic Farming Association. They get very little in the way of government support. The higher prices for agricultural produce are not large enough to make up for the roughly 40 percent of production that has to be thrown out or sold at discount because it isn’t up to high consumer standards.

Still, Korean farmers are not in it for the money. “In the West, consumers became wealthier and had the economic capacity to think about food security,” explains Na. “So they went to farmers to ask for organic products and said, ‘If you grow these organic crops, we’ll buy everything.’ In Korea it was totally the opposite. Farmers suffered a great deal from the pesticides and chemical fertilizers. They felt that even if they made a lot of money they’d die from such farming. So they thought they would do farming without chemicals.”

The industrial miracle that made South Korea into one of the top dozen economies of the world poisoned the people and countryside. In the 2005 Environmental Sustainability Index, South Korea ranked 122 out of 146 nations, the worst showing of any industrialized country. Air and water pollution is notoriously bad. The environmental movement has grown more powerful over the last decade, however, and has sparked ever-growing interest in chemical-free food.

Even in the organic sector, though, South Korean farmers face competition from imports, especially vegetables from China. Researcher and activist Kwon Young Geun is not worried about Chinese competition: “The quality of Chinese organic products is much lower than Korean products. When Korean farmers do organic farming, it is just like a religion it is of such a high quality.”

The South Korean government has put some money and influence behind the organic movement – with the Sustainable Agriculture Promotion Act of 1998 and direct payments to farmers who use environment-friendly practices – though critics argue that this effort is insufficient. By a twist in the WTO rules, such environmentally friendly policies can operate underneath the radar, so to speak, of the free-trade regime. Government subsidies that promote environmental protection and sustainability are sheltered from trade liberalization by the “Green Box” in current agricultural negotiations. Europe has begun to shift its subsidy structure greenward. South Korea could profitably follow the European example.

Next Stop: Hong Kong

Lee Kyung Hae worked for many years with the Korean Organic Farming Association before desperation drove him to commit suicide in 2003. Although KOFA’s Na Gi-Soo believes that the situation for organic farming has improved dramatically – “compared to five years ago, the difference is between heaven and hell” – he acknowledges that the situation overall remains bleak. “Lee Kyung Hae went to the WTO meeting in Cancun and killed himself because the reality of farmers in South Korea is so desperate,” Na says. “South Korea has no agriculture-oriented policy. Most farmers are old, many older than 70. Lee did let the world know about the situation of the Korean countryside. The South Korean government and other governments stated that they were sad about his death. But there was no big change in Korean agricultural policy. It’s a sad thing.”

In 1970, a similarly despondent activist named Chun Tae-Il poured gasoline over himself at a labor demonstration and lit a match. “We are not machines,” the 22-year-old cried as the flames enveloped him. Chun committed suicide to protest the unspeakably difficult situation of Korean sweatshop laborers. It would take more than a dozen years before a labor movement gathered force in Korea to change working conditions and help usher in democratic governance.

Korean farmers are similarly digging in their heels for the long haul, with the sacrifice of Lee Kyung Hae still fresh in their minds. In December 2005 when the WTO ministerial regroups in Hong Kong, South Koreans will be there again. “The peasant movement remembers him and commemorates him,” says Kwon Young Geun. “We plan to go to Hong Kong in December to ask for the justice that he sought.”

Alternet, August 29, 2005

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